[Sidebar] February 12 - 19, 1998
[Food Reviews]
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Legal Sea Foods

If only more seafood joints like this were Legal

by Bill Rodriguez

2099 Post Road, Warwick, 732-3663
Open Mon-Thurs, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.
Fri, til 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m.
Sat., 12-10:30 p.m., Sun., 12-9 p.m.
Major credit cards
Sidewalk access

Making a go of a restaurant is hard enough, but doing it with seafood is the hardest, because the cooking couldn't be trickier. Grill a swordfish steak a minute too long and you're serving cat food. But as a recent visit to the Legal Sea Foods Restaurant near the airport demonstrated, places like these can more than survive, they can thrive, by doing things right.

I remember being impressed back in 1968 by Legal Seafood's first operation in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Moderate prices, consistently good preparation. It seemed to be packed in there all the time. Well, the Berkowitz family now has 13 restaurants, all but two in Massachusetts, and they will soon open another two in Manhattan and Baltimore.

Their main trick has been to assure freshness by establishing a central seafood quality control lab outside of Boston. They also get their pick of the catch by force of their high-volume purchases (as in 100-plus tons a week). As a result, the Today Show has touted them as the best seafood restaurant in the nation.

In Warwick, the spot is sleek but not slick. White-and-blue checked tablecloths match the sea blue on the wainscoting that partitions off some of the tables. Tiles topping square columns conjure up the squeaky-clean atmosphere of a fish market, while the required marine imagery of fish charts and harbor photos decorate the walls.

The raw bar here offers no surprises -- cherrystone and littleneck clams and oysters ($6.95 to $8.95 per half-dozen); steamers, mussels, and shell-on shrimp ($8.95 to $9.95). But Legal's New England clam chowder, last year's winner of the Rhode Island Chowder Cook-Off in Newport, doesn't so much set itself apart from other versions as fulfill all expectations. No wonder it has been served at the last four presidential inauguration banquets.

For an appetizer, we had a house specialty -- smoked bluefish pate ($5.95). Surrounded, as it was, by a salad-worth of vegetable sticks on a bed of red-leaf lettuce, it was enough for two or three to share. And the thick slice of pate had been rolled in walnuts -- a complement that worked well. Unusual offerings among the other appetizers include steamed or fried shrimp wontons, crab claws, and a crab and avocado quesadilla. For entreés, the standard array of fried seafood -- plus smelts -- is on the menu, but grilled and baked choices are more numerous.

Over the course of a year, Legal claims to offer more varieties of fish than any other restaurant in the nation, resulting in grilled arctic char alongside the more common mahi-mahi (both $15.95) on the regular menu, while a dozen menu "specialties" range from the hearty "Portuguese Fisherman's Stew" ($11.95) to the delicate "Trout Provençal ($12.95) and the extravagant Alaskan King crab legs ($29.95).

Out of all of these, though, my dining mate's seafood potpie ($13.95) is on my agenda for a future visit. The top crust was flaky and delicious in a lobster broth (mercifully unthickened) that was tangy with sherry. The vegetables were not cooked to mush and had plenty of competition among the bounty of shrimp, mussels, scallops, and white fish.

My choice for the evening was equally successful -- shrimp and scallop kabobs ($17.95) served, at my request, with marvelously buttery red bliss mashed potatoes instead of the traditional rice pilaf. The seafood was cooked just right, and its freshness was in stark contrast to shrimp I'd tried recently at a fancy -- and far pricier -- Providence restaurant.

Despite the generous portions here, we still found room for dessert, recommending to our waitress (a self-described dessert maven) a new item she hadn't tried yet herself. Uncle Joe's cake ($4.95) is a chocolate-lover's dream. A small tower contains two layers of cake, and the rest is chocolate whipped cream, coffee butter cream, etc.

I suppose we can never expect bad restaurants to be illegal. But we sure could do worse if more of them were Legal.

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